I have mixed feelings about Jay-Z’s Decoded. On one hand, it is exhilaratingÂ to tear through a book authored by a rapper wielding sufficient crossover clout toÂ defend rap as meaningful poetry. On the other hand, fuck anyone who still doesn’t get it. Okay, that’s a bit extreme. Maybe what I mean is “fuck the idea that rap has to be made legible to the largest audience possible prior to being accepted as a valuable artistic expression.” And I don’t write those words simply to bash the bougie-come-latelys whose newÂ appreciation of rap’s narrative of struggle might have been more useful back during the height of the crack epidemic, although it is admittedly fun to mock this clueless, gouty straw man.
I am also saying that there is plenty of rap music that is difficult to digest, and that’s okay. Sometimes such difficulty arises by design, as part of a conscious attempt to develop a sense of mystique. Such mystique is an invitation for the listener to revisit the work and derive a more profound meaning, after being awed by how cool mystique can look and sound. Although a deeper understanding is the ultimate goal, it is possible to consume and enjoy such works Â before every line and allusion is gleefully curated on the printed page or made available for download on a Kindle.1 Yes, it is very true that rap cries out to be noticed and understood, but it is equally true that some rap also drapes itself in the kind of cool you are not supposed to easily interpret.2
During rap’s odd transition period in the mid-90s, Â I found myself listening to De La Soul, Camp-Lo, Jay-z, Rae and Ghost, and Digable Planets a whole lot more than any other artists. In my mind these particular groups constituted a kind of scene unto themselves3 in spite of their differences in artistic approach and overall sound. The most important commonality in my view was the fact that their albums are difficult works that reward careful listening and elude the silly binary constructs Â imposed upon the genre by critics. You were not penalized for simply nodding along to the beats or enjoying the flows or grinning at the panache of the lyrics; these albums were designed so that even their most superficial elements would magnetize listeners. But once snagged by the magic of these recordings, you would have to be crazy to insist that they held nothing else in store beyond their surface appeal.
On Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z delved into the conflicted psychology of the hustler and on Only Built 4 Cuban Links Raekwon painted the act of hustling with cinematic splendor. To claim that either approach simply rehashes a gangsta rap formula is to willfully ignore the ways that both rappers painstakingly construct and arrange slang and busy themselves with their own sort of Â “world building.” Once the world within the album is built, the fact that casual listening reaps minor rewards does not negate the sophistication of the larger project. De La Soul’s Stakes Is High is not simply a bitter attack on gangsta rap flaunted over stripped down funk. Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night is not just the sum of blaxploitation word flurries and Ski’s slick production. In both cases highly coded language and intricate flows house elaborate worlds in which different personalities, philosophies, locales, and situations are rendered with wit and flair.
Digable Planets’s sophomore albumÂ Blowout Comb is perhaps even more difficult to fully appreciate because it is a mind fuck even at its surface level. It announces itself as cool, suggests that the cool it espouses is a inclusive, communal, and revolutionary, but then makes no concessions to accessibility. The trio samples many of the jazz fusion heroes you’d expect to hear chopped up on a Gang Starr or Pete Rock and CL Smooth record, but the result is nowhere near the same. The samples are paired with live instrumentation that sounds just as fuzzy and lo-fi as the sounds lifted from the crate. The vocals hover towards the back of the mix like mischievous specters or wise seraphs, depending on your point of view. And then there are the lyrics.
Blowout Comb’s lyricsÂ contain references to every preceding era of hip hop; other black music forms like funk, soul, and jazz; virtually every organization and personality associated with the umbrella term “Black Power”; Marxist, socialist, and other radical leftist thinkers and ideologies; and five percenter mysticism. These references are often clustered together to announce a new subversive version of cool that makes the Native Tongue by way of the Beat Generation rhetoric of their first album seem thin and shallow in comparison. Submerged in the hypnotic, breezy vocals and elongated, ethereal jam sessions of Blowout Comb is an angry, confident, energized militancy.4Â Blowout Comb is difficult not just because some decoding is required to render this militancy fully palpable, but also because it is never clear if the sublimation of rage is intentional or merely inevitable, or both. It is certainly enjoyable either way, but I recommend letting it simmer for years before jumping to a judgment.
Digable Planets disbanded after Blowout Comb failed to make a large enough impression to justify future label investment. Since then the group members have reunited for shows and pursued solo projects but have not to my knowledge released anything as Digable Planets.Â Ishmael “Ish” Butler5 has returned to his hometown of Seattle and is currently recording and releasing music under the name Shabazz Palaces. In the age where fans can track Joe Budden’s every bodega run, Ish seems to have adopted an ethos/strategy of mystification6 that makes his former artistic incarnations seem downright transparent. Although Shabazz Palaces has gained attention online for signing with legendary Seattle label Sub Pop, I am not entirely certain whether Shabazz Palaces refers to a collaborative effort or to Ish himself; he also refers to himself these days as Palaceer Lazaro.7
Shabazz PalacesÂ released two EPs in 2009 on Templar Label Group, Shabazz Palaces and Of Light. Both are challenging, often perplexing works, even for fans of Ish’s Digable Planets output. If Blowout Comb added difficulty and depth to the cool that the Digable Planets debut LP Reachin’ isolated and made accessible, this new Shabazz Palaces material re-mystifies it. The fusillade of allusions that signified militancy has been significantly scaled back. During the Digable Planets days it was obvious to anyone paying attention that systemic ills and the people in charge of wicked institutions were the enemy because the legion of allies shouted out in their lyrics were notable for their anti-establishment views. On these Shabazz Palaces recordings, however, Ish rails against the sins of a social order but rarely mentions his exact allies or targets by name. He devotes his energy to assisting the dark, sometimes grimy musical backdrops communicate a mood of anger of despair. His flow is more aggressive, his words are more searing but the exact object of his scorn is increasingly, perhaps intentionally hard to pin down.
So is the music. One critic notes the presence of “soul samples, Caribbean percussion, hand claps, looped tribal chanting” which to his ears sound like “Hell Hath No Fury era Clipse were thrown into a blender with some Public Enemy lyrical content, a splash of El-Pâ€™s bleak envelope pushing beats, and topped with your standard 2010 instrumental glitch-hop producer.”8Â Listeners with more sensitive ears or greater knowledge of musical sub-genres may not agree with this writer’s description, but it sounds just about right to me. More importantly, the idea that a manic eclecticism is on display in the music is correct; the parenthetical lyricism and pleasantly strange beats of Digable planets have been replaced by an even more cryptic pastiche where the lyrics still do the job of illumination, but at a much more gradual pace, a “bright light on the dark side of town.”
Ish still pens odes to stylishly strolling or rolling through town and grumbles about snakes, devils, hypocrites, and other unseemly types. But this time around I assume that he’s wandering his hometown of Seattle on gloomy overcast days and foggy nights. Whether or not he is still enamored with the cool pose of gangsters and pimps or mildly disdainful of their antisocial behavior is not entirely clear anymore. He is less likely to condense a series of seemingly disparate concepts and images into a single line these days; more often than not he remains fixed in one mode for a while, switching perspectives but making it clear that his world view and priority has undergone some kind of shift in the past eighteen years. Or he’s playing a series of characters. Once again, it is not entirely clear. Every track bumps, though. Otherwise the whole affair might seem like more of a chore than a pleasure, right? — Thun
- This doesn’t mean that well-intended fans can’t have plenty of fun trying to figure shit out amongst themselves, or that learned critics should shy from every possible instance of interpretation, I’m just saying that not every song or album needs to be fully decoded any time soon. [↩]
- I’m 31 so I have no choice but to proudly join the demographic that simply will not “get” every new rap trend. It bees like that. [↩]
- The real hip hop nerds reading this are already aware of how these groups are all connected; the rest of you are going to have to do some research on your own for once. [↩]
- A while back I wrote an essay analyzing Blowout Comb in which I expound upon these themes and techniques. [↩]
- The less said about his former sobriquet “Butterfly” the better. [↩]
- Writer Dave Segal describes this seemingly intentional mystification in more detail in this review/interview, while Larry Mizell Jr. sheds some more light in this album/concert review. [↩]
- The Shabazz Palaces website is vague and almost comically late 90s Geocities in appearance, and online critics and bloggers have only confused matters. [↩]
- Shabazz Palaces: Of Light/Shabazz Palaces [Album Review]. [↩]